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Why do we have surnames?

8 July 2016
Posted By:
Rowena Willard-Wright
History Uncovered
RE-enactor from the Saxon camp at the Battle of Hastings

One of the most obvious changes to English culture after 1066 occurs in the names people called themselves. Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names disappeared quite quickly after the Norman Conquest. French names like William, Robert and Henry become popular among the general population – and for the first time, surnames start to appear.

Anglo-Saxons had nick-names as second names – for example, Edmund Ironside or Ethelred Unread (“without counsel”) – or names indicating their paternity, such as Cuthbert Edmund’s son, whose son would have been called Alfred Cuthbert’s son. But they did not have inherited surnames – these arrived with the Normans.

This can be seen in that most Norman of creations, the Domesday Book. In 1066 many landowners were simply referred to by their Anglo-Saxon first names, but by 1086 surnames are included.

How were surnames chosen?

Surnames were originally added to people’s first names to distinguish them from other people who had the same first name locally e.g. Robert the baker or Robert at the wood. Initially they were changed or dropped at will, but were eventually passed on from generation to generation, so that by Richard II’s Poll Tax lists of 1381 most English families had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.

Some surnames dervive from professions like blacksmith.

Some surnames – like Smith – pre-date the Norman Conquest

However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, such as the most common Anglo-Saxon surname, Smith. The Norman counterpart to smith would have been a farrier, or ferrier, a worker in metal, which appears in surnames like Farrah or Farrar, whereas the Celtic version of the same occupation is gobha, from which come the surname Gow, Gowan and Gove.

Place names in French also appear in seemingly English surnames such as Disney, which comes from French D’ Isigny (Isigny a village in Normandy near Bayeux). There are exceptions, such as the surname Telford, which doesn’t come from the English town at all. The town was named after Thomas Telford, a Shropshire engineer who was inspired by Abraham Darby’s Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale.

Ironically the surname Telford is derived from a Norman nickname “taille fer,” meaning ‘cuts iron’, indicating a possessor of great strength. The first man killed at the Battle of Hastings was said to be William’s minstrel, Guy of Amiens, nicknamed Taillefer.

Investigate your origins

So if you are interested in a more personal look at history, a good place to start is your own surname’s origins. But remember, if you have a French surname, it does not necessarily mean your family came from France.

Most people were and continued to be of English descent, with only a small number of Norman nobles and their retainers living in England. Instead a French derived name might have been taken for status, or because you were working for a Norman noble who listed your occupation in French, such as John the charpentier or Carpenter, which in English would have been Wright. However, if you have a surname which comes from a French place name you are much more likely to be descended from a Norman forebear.

Meet the People of 1066

Saxon Frydsman and Norman KnightIt’s the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and we’re following the events of 1066 month by month as they unfold, all year, on Twitter – just search for #Battle1066.

You can find out more about the people of 1066 on the English Heritage website, and read a round up of the story of the Norman Conquest starting here on the blog.

As we draw closer to the time of the battle, it’s time to decide – are you on Team Norman or Team Saxon? Take our quiz and discover your allegiance.


Editors note: this post has been edited to properly attribute the building of Iron Bridge to Abraham Darby, rather than Thomas Telford. The idea was originally suggested by architect Thomas Pritchard in 1773, and we mixed up our Thomases. Thank you to everyone who picked up on the error.  

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  • About the Author

    Rowena Willard-Wright
    Rowena is the Senior Curator at Dover Castle.


  1. Telford wasn’t an engineer of the Ironbridge near Coalbrookdale it was Abraham Darby. Please check your facts as this is quite a popular misconception.

  2. Thomas Telford the engineer of the Iron bridge in Coalbrookdale? I think you mean Abraham Darby

  3. What about Norse influences? I know the Norse used a similar method of surnames for a long time, but is there much influence from the Norse that found it’s way in the English surnames?

  4. Also, slaves took on the surnames of theit masters , so , some people got their last names that way, like Jackson , for example

  5. Norse had a similar style of surnames like the Anglo-Saxon I mean.*

  6. The Brereton family helped create this Doomsday book and the legacy of the surname

  7. Thank you for this I love anything to do with the Anglo Saxons and English history

  8. Sorry but the Iron Bridge was designed by Thomas Farnolds Pritchard of Broseley. Sadly he died before it was finished. Telford was involved later in his capacity as roads and bridges engineer for Shropshire.

  9. Quiz won’t appear on my mobile.

  10. Would “Holdaway,”, from Hampshire, be an Anglo Saxon name?

  11. Hi Paul,
    Thank you for picking this up. We’ve amended the post to correct the original mistake and given due credit to Thomas Pritchard and Abraham Darby. We’re sorry this error crept in.
    Best wishes,

  12. Thanks for pointing this out Susie, we’re getting the developers on to it this morning.
    Best wishes,

  13. Hi Jean,
    Yes we did mean Abraham Darby and I’ve amended the post this morning to correct the error. We’re really sorry that it crept in, but I hope you enjoyed the post apart from that.
    Best wishes,

  14. Hi Sarah,
    An error definitely slipped through the net here – we’ve updated and corrected the post this morning to give proper credit to Abraham Darby and Thomas Pritchard. We’re really sorry that this mistake wasn’t picked up sooner. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, we hope you enjoyed the post otherwise.
    Best wishes,

  15. I think the article stated that Thomas Telford was inspired by Abraham Darby’s Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale

  16. That’s not what It says? It clearly states Telford was inspired by Abraham Darby’s iron bridge, people need to read properly before they criticise and try to correct people

  17. Surnames arose symbiotically with taxation, ownership and hereditary transfer of wealth (particularly land title)

  18. Hi Andria,
    Yes – we updated the text to correct an error on the original post. Hope you enjoyed the post!
    Best wishes,

  19. Hi,
    The original post did have an error in it, and so we corrected it to properly reflect Iron Bridge’s history. I think the confusion has crept in with people reading the old/new versions – we’re really sorry to have let such a mistake get past us but I hope you enjoyed the rest of the post anyway!
    Best wishes,

  20. I think that despite the writer’s error, most of us understood the point he was making, Telford is indubitably the Scotsman who laid the foundations of industrial Britain, “The Colossus of Roads” and “The Godfather of Civil Engineering”. The significant point was that Thomas Telford had a town named after him, not that the surname Telford came from the town.

  21. Thank you for commenting Raymond.

  22. It doesn’t say Thomas Telford was the engineer of the
    Iron bridge it says he was inspired by Abraham Darby’s Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale.

  23. Please read the post before commenting critically!

  24. I found statistical analysis of the incidence of surnames from census returns by UCL was useful and fascinating especially if you have an unusual name but most Smiths came from the Black Country! This was taken over by The National Trust but has been scrubbed I found on recent enquiry.
    For medieval roots York University have analysed tax returns levied on foreigners/ immigrants but don’t tell the Brexiteers or they might have you taxed and /or returned!

  25. To whoever commented below, if you read the passage again it clearly states that Telford was inspired by Darby’s Iron Bridge. It does not say that he engineered it.

  26. Maybe English Heritage could be persuaded to give reading lessons? As I read that Telford was an engineer who was inspired by Darby’s iron bridge! Not that he built it!
    Personally I think the blogs are excellent and often have a lot of fun researching for further information to feed my own curiosity. Thank you for all the hard work.

  27. A great way of understanding our history through personal involvement and interaction.

  28. A lot of surnames come from the place the family came from. As my name is Cave.
    In the 1700 the church records at show Johannas Du Cave. He moved to Lancashire probably from North or South Cave in North Yorkshire.

  29. It doesn’t say Telford was the engineer of coalbrookdale bridge. It says Telford was INSPIRED by Abraham Darby.

  30. ‘The first man killed at the Battle of Hastings was said to be William’s minstrel, Guy of Amiens, nicknamed Taillefer.’ So who wrote The Carmen? These Norman naming traditions can be a bit confusing…

  31. How about Hazzard (Hazard/Hassard)? I’ve read it was from the Arabic “al zahr,” meaning the dice. It was most likely a nickname for a person who was a risk-taker, or gambler. The Hazard manor in Devon doesn’t appear to be the origin of the surname, as no one who lived there was also named Hazard (such as Thomas of Hazard becoming Thomas Hazard ). Any ideas?

  32. My maiden name is Arries , would love to know it;s origin.We were always led to believe it comes from Arras in France,

  33. Pingback: What was the legacy of William the Conqueror? - English Heritage Blog

  34. Is there a website where we can possible trace lineage and ancestry? Please advise. Thank you.

  35. Hi Robert, thanks for commenting. There are lots of websites out there for tracing your family tree – in the UK at least I believe is the biggest, but it’s by no means the only one! A quick search should help find one that suits your purposes. Good luck!

  36. Pingback: How William the Conqueror spent Christmas in 1066 - English Heritage Blog

  37. Surname BAARTMAN

  38. The Normans were Vikings who settled in Normandy. Norman means North Men as the Vikings came from the North. They chose to speak French and adopted Christianity. It’s the same when they came to England and also Italy. But they were not French, English or Italian.